Agency Within Contextual Constraints: Mobile Phone Use Among Female Live-Out Domestic Workers in Delhi

Pranav Malhotra, Richard Ling


This study explores how access to the mobile phone affects the lives of female live-out (as opposed to live-in) domestic workers in Delhi. Through interviews with 102 workers, we find that the mobile phone helps to enhance their agency in determining their daily schedule, the amount of work they take on, and the public spaces they can safely occupy. It also engenders certain communication obligations at home and work, reinforcing the inequalities they face due to their marginalized position at the intersection of gender and social class. We draw upon contextually sensitive conceptualizations of agency to explain this phenomenon. In doing so, we argue that the device enhances the women’s capacity to act within the context of the social, cultural, and economic forces within which they are embedded. Further, we discuss the relationship between different types of access to technology and such conceptualizations of agency, highlighting its dynamic and complex nature. Thus, we move beyond dichotomies such as empowerment/disempowerment and access/no access to make a nuanced contribution to the literature on gender, mobile communication, and development.


domestic work, mobile phones, India, M4D, digital divide, restricted agency

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